The True Scale of the Crisis and the Everyday Catastrophe



The True Scale of the Crisis and the Everyday Catastrophe

Louis Kotzé on Local Governance.

Knowledge about the destruction of global common goods is available, yet the global community is failing to protect them. Environmental lawyer Louis Kotzé is working on legal standards to better protect the environment and natural resources, especially at the local level.

Mr. Kotzé, you lead a research group at THE NEW INSTITUTE in Hamburg called "Governing the Planetary Commons". What is your work about?

We deal with the global commons as part of the climate crisis, often from the perspective of the Global South. When we think of the global commons, we first think of the atmosphere, the oceans, things that are largely beyond the control of individual states. However, we are broadening our perspective to include ecological systems that are of global importance but lie within national boundaries, such as the Amazon. These could also be local systems such as the Elbe in Hamburg.

Where and how does governance come into play?

The fundamental idea of global public goods is to protect them in the interest of humanity as a whole. We are therefore concerned with a new definition of these global public goods, which would make it possible, for example, to oblige the countries bordering the Amazon to protect it, while supporting them in doing so and compensating them appropriately. To this end, we are also looking at international institutions, which, it must be said, are unfortunately largely failing when it comes to the effective protection of global public goods.

So, it's about creating a new international law?

Yes, but it’s not necessarily a uniform law. We are concerned with further development of international law, as discussed at the COPs and in other international formats. But it’s also about European law or German law, because how Germany and Europe deal with the environment has a direct impact on other parts of the world.

"Only when the catastrophe becomes part of everyday life, as was the case in the Ahr valley, for example, can we begin to grasp the extent of the crisis."

How important is the local context?

Very important. The legislative and regulatory possibilities of a city like Hamburg are enormous. Imagine if large cities were to maximize their potential and cooperate internationally to increase the protection of the planetary commons – this would have a significant impact on ecological systems and would very likely also have an impact on legislation at the national and international levels.

However, we are currently experiencing an accelerating climate crisis and increasing global tensions. Comprehensive global cooperation seems difficult to imagine at the moment.

I think there is a large and growing international consensus that international law and institutions need to be fundamentally reformed to better respond to the global reality of the accelerating climate crisis. We need something like a comprehensive international social agreement that transcends national interests and, above all, also transcends economic lobbies, as these exert an enormous influence on how socio-ecological transformation is prioritized at national and international levels. The problem is that the attention spans of politics and society are too short to understand the climate crisis as an existential crisis – the situation is too abstract. Only when the catastrophe becomes part of everyday life, as was the case in the Ahr valley, for example, can we begin to grasp the extent of the crisis.

At the beginning, you talked about looking at events from the perspective of the Global South. How do you see the current relationship between North and South?

There is a historically unprecedented tension between North and South, which can largely be traced back to the colonization, exploitation and enslavement of the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America by Europe and North America. To this day, the countries of the North have not only benefited economically from this, but their ecological footprint is also many times larger, especially when the wealth accumulated during the colonial era and the associated emissions are considered. Given this historical background, it isn’t surprising that the South shows little willingness to be pressured by Europe or the United States to reduce CO2 emissions and to put its own development on the back burner. This can be seen every year at the COPs when it comes to access to raw material and the resulting profits or privileges stemming from the colonial era, some of which are still in place. Practices of injustice that have been ingrained over centuries are perpetuated, with people in the Global South continuing to be disadvantaged to this day. This carries over into Western societies, where the global divide persists: disadvantaged groups have poorer housing, less access to education, health and good jobs – they are predominantly migrants, i.e., people from the Global South. However, we are also concerned about new forms of colonialism, such as that which China has been practicing for some time now. Nothing in life is free, and the Chinese will demand something in return for their massive investments in Africa.

Despite all historical efforts and existing international institutions, the global balance of power currently seems to reflect the rights of the strongest rather than those of weaker groups and future generations.

Unfortunately, this is the case. That’s why we’re working on developing new legal principles, such as expanding the sustainable development approach to include something like sufficiency, the concept of sufficient development.

"Sustainability is a concept that takes resources into account, but primarily in order to be able to maintain and increase yields. We are, instead, trying to find a description that defines sufficient, adequate prosperity."

Can you explain that?

Sustainability is a concept that takes resources into account, but primarily in order to be able to maintain and increase yields. We are, instead, trying to find a description that defines sufficient, adequate prosperity. It is also very important in this context to make recognition of vulnerability a legal principle. Because vulnerability affects the planet, ecological resources and human societies in equal measure, but in different ways and to different degrees. People in the Global South are much more vulnerable than people in Germany, for example, simply because the infrastructures are very different. Vulnerability can be a conceptual framework that makes all of this visible and does justice to these different issues.

What does this mean in concrete terms? How can this be translated into political action?

First of all, we should note that the United Nations and other international institutions have always been idealistic projects that are at odds with the interests of individual sovereign states. I would rather start at the other end: What can we achieve at municipal, local and regional levels? The EU, for example, is doing excellent work in this respect and I have just been working on its plan to combat microplastics. A lot is also happening at the municipal level, especially in terms of the transport policies of large cities that create incentives for sustainable mobility, such as free bicycles and free public transport. There are many solutions at local and regional levels. I believe that the answer is more likely to be found here than on the wider international stage.

Louis Kotzé is Research Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law at North-West University in South Africa, Senior Professorial Fellow in Earth System Law at the University of Lincoln in the UK, and currently Co-Chair of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Earth System Governance Network. His research focuses on human rights, social-ecological justice and environmental constitutionalism, law and the Anthropocene, and Earth system law. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is Chair of the program "Governing the Planetary Commons: A Focus on the Amazon".

This interview by Lukas Franke was originally published in German by Table.Media

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